Epiphany Religions Versus A Religion of Promise

I’m rereading Moltmann’s Theology of Hope for my course at the College of the Transfiguration.  It amazes me how fresh and relevant it still is.  I’m particularly struck with his distinction between epiphany religions and a religion of promise.

Epiphany religions interpret God’s presence as the unveiling of what exists eternally in some non-historical, heavenly realm.  Revelation, in these religions, provides comfort in the midst of chaos and change by annihilating history and winds up providing sanction to the political and cultural status quo by linking it with eternity.  Moltmann is thinking here especially of Greek philosophy’s and theology’s interest in timelessness and the eternal realm of ideas, but he sees the influence of this type of religion continuing in many present-day forms of Christian faith and practice.

In contrast to an epiphany religion, Israel experienced God’s word and presence as a history of promise and faithfulness to God’s promises.  This religion of promise fundamentally alters ideas about history and the status quo.  As Moltmann says, “here Yahweh’s revelation manifestly does not serve to bring the ever-threatened present in congruence with his eternity.  On the contrary, its effect is that hearers of the promise become incongruous with the reality around them, as they strike out towards the promised new future.  The result is not the religious sanctioning of the present but a break-away from the present towards the future.”  This religion of promise gives rise to Israel’s unique concept of history and its prophetic tendencies which constantly call for greater righteousness in light of God’s faithfulness and God’s future.

I think this tension between an epiphany religion and a religion of promise is quite a real one within the Episcopal Church today.  As I’ve mentioned before on this site, there is much in our Anglican history, polity, and theology that finds itself most comfortable thinking of revelation and religion in terms of an epiphany of the timeless, changeless, ineffable God.  If it does not explicitly sanction the status quo, then its quest for a subjective experience of the transcendental reality of divinity ends up doing it nonetheless.  To be blunt, think of all the rubbish that passes itself off as spirituality in the church today.

However, I also think there is in our history and theology a deep commitment to the religion of promise that we find in God’s dealings with Israel and supremely in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Despite the recent machinations over the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, I actually think, for the most part, the theology one finds in it is a theology of promise.  I rather think the desire on the part of much of General Convention to express its discontent with our current world and church, and to live more fully into God’s future is an outgrowth, whether recognized or not, of a church that has been formed by the theology of the 1979 BCP.

But the tension between folks who see the theology of the church in terms of epiphany and those who see it in terms of promise remains.  I’ll leave it to you to identify the voices of epiphany and the voices of promise.

What I will say, as someone who thinks in terms of a theology of promise, is that the weakness, theologically speaking, of many of the statements we heard from General Convention is that they want to speak out in terms of God’s promises and God’s future, but their theology is still captivated by a religion of epiphany.  Until we cut out the religion of epiphany at its roots, our public proclamations will sound like the shrill, thin, and bloodless slogans of a small Episcopal tribe, instead of the earth-shaking and world-transforming promises of the God of Israel who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.


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